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Street Portraiture Tips
by Craig Tanner
One of the many photography workshops, Craig Tanner teaches is street portraiture. The Street Portraiture Workshop in Savannah, Ga. where the focus of the workshop is impromptu portraits of people we are just meeting on the street. On the workshop I call these people the "strangers we know" because we have a lot more in common with them, whoever they might be, than things that set us apart.
People as a subject on average scare most photographers to the point that they avoid this kind of photography altogether (which was true in my own photography for years). In my personal experience, doing street photography and in helping others do street photography as a photographic educator, I have discovered a very strange contradiction. About eighty percent of all photographers I have polled identify approaching strangers with their camera as their biggest fear. But about eighty per cent of the people I have seen approached and have approached myself have said "YES !".
How can this possibly be true? How can something that ultimately leads to such a high level of success generate so much fear?
We all want to have a new experience and we all want community. In our hearts these are two of our highest callings. But we know that to have a new experience we will have to be willing to deal with the risks associated with the unknown. When we become willing to relinquish control and open ourselves up to new possibilities, including receiving a few "no's" as a condition of being truly alive we are richly rewarded - as the above scenario I call the 80 / 80 rule illustrates.
Here is a short list of tips for first time street portrait photographers that can dramatically help you move into, what has become for me in the last 5 years, the most exciting area of my photography.
1) Network and find a group of photographers (your local camera club is a great place to start) who do street photography and go on an outing with them. One of the best ways to learn is by modeling on others who have experience. Even if you approach people on your own its generally much easier to do this work when you can reference a group of people who you are with for the day.
2) A powerful way to be part of a group without being with a group is to make a project out of your street photography and in your approach share your project idea. People what to be a part of things that are bigger than themselves (community).
3) Don't be afraid to make your approach by simply speaking your truth about your fear. Asking someone for their help to get over your fear gives other people a chance to go from being a potentially uncomfortable subject in front of the camera to being in service to another human being who is earnestly trying to grow and evolve. This universally resonates with the best in all of us.
4) Frame the whole experience with a positive outcome. Start with someone in your group who you know. Photograph each other in the same space where you will be approaching others. Street Performers (especially when tipped up front) are another great subject to choose to practically insure that your first attempt will end with a positive result. I can't over emphasize the importance of this step. It doesn't just frame things in a positive way for you. It frames you in a positive light to the other people on the street. Many times when I have been photographing one person on the street or in a bar another person has volunteered to be next. Do not underestimate the incredible power of a positive frame for whatever is about to happen next.
5) In the initial phase of your approach, especially if it is on the street, consciously manage yourself. Stand tall. Wear you camera at your side or on your back. Choose a short lens or better yet start out working with a Lensbaby (use wctanner as your discount code to get ten per cent off your Lensbaby purchase)…..its disarming and piques the curiosity of almost everyone. The Lensbaby has helped me to meet more people with my camera than any other single idea. Move and talk much, much, much slower than you typically do. Or say nothing at all (see the next tip). Introduce pauses where there should be none. Set yourself apart by being slightly different and or slightly higher energy than the people in the general area. Start your approach from a considerable distance…… eight feet or more. A very slow and deliberate wave with great eye contact before you ever say anything is a great start.
6) Once you start to approach "strangers" get permission without ever directly asking for it. People would rather not be put into a yes / no situation. Its potentially confrontational. Its also boring and wastes a beautiful opportunity to start helping other people enjoy their life. When we go from wanting to get the picture to offering happiness and fun and a new experience to the people we are meeting they will be very happy to trade their time as your model to be a part of a new and enlivening experience. My favorite all time "line" is "I would love to take your picture". Its not asking. Its not trying which creates distance and impossibility. Its being...myself and speaking my truth. Say it very slow...with conviction and with a smile. Only say it when it is true. Know exactly why its true. When people resist with classic lines like "I don't look good in pictures" or "I am not comfortable in front of the camera" do not buy in. Do not react to limiting and negative thoughts. Lead the way with simple confidence. Just slowly repeat yourself with a big smile... "I would love to take your picture"...you might be amazed at how well this one approach could work for you.
7) If you are very nervous or have been turned down a few times in a row quit talking altogether. Use extremely simple body language to "ask". This may be your very best starting point if you are experiencing a high level of fear.
8) Get a Pogo Polaroid Printer. This is an awesome tool that allows you to immediately share prints with your portrait subjects. This printer also dramatically elevates your energy on the street. As you share the gift of your photography in a profound and direct way you become a powerful tool of attraction bringing new portrait subjects to you like a magnet. Click here to watch a short video I recorded about the Polaroid POGO Printer.
9) Let yourself have a new experience and forget about the outcome. Try different approaches. Slow down enough and make enough attempts to start to become consciously aware of what is working and what is not. "No" is a part of this process. Period. And that is a good thing if you are brave enough to try again slightly tweaking your approach. Practice makes perfect. "No" is simply part of the time honored trial and error path to the desired result, as long as the "no" leads to self discovery. Say "YES" to the "no". Remember the 80 / 80 rule. Remember that discomfort always comes before a breakthrough. Reframe that energy by renaming it "the state of heightened awareness" that is the partner to the state of self discovery. "No" is just a circumstance. Your story is a "YES" story. Its how you got here. Have fun!!!